Researchers in Japan Show Humans Feel Empathy for Robots in ‘Pain’

Published by , November 9, 2015 11:30 am

(FutureTense) — A team of researchers from Japan showed the first neurophysiological evidence that humans feel empathy for robots in pain. The team performed electroencephalography brain scans on 15 adults who looked at pictures of human and robot hands in painful situations being cut by a knife or a pair of scissors. The researchers also asked the participants how unpleasant they felt after observing the pictures and whether they thought the robot felt pain. While most people said the robot did not feel pain, their brain waves suggested otherwise.

Part of the reason the people in the study felt empathy is because the robot hand looks like ours. We interpret the robot hand to be human-like, triggering the same neural reaction as if it were a real hand. “Humans have a limited set of social and emotional responses, and we apply those processes to both human and nonhuman entities,” Doug Gillan, a psychologist who has studied human-robot interaction, told me. And the more human-ike those entities are — whether it’s a physical machine or a cartoon character like WALL-E — the stronger the empathy.

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